His Excellency Edward Little, the Bishop of Northern Indiana wrote an article in the Living Church magazine this week called Robustly Liturgical Living. The bishop wrote that he is quite a fan of Starbucks coffee and he frequents the ubiquitous shops wherever he is in the world. Lately he has seen a new advertising slogan on the shop windows: “Take Comfort In Rituals,” the slogan reads. Take comfort in rituals. The whole world does, in fact, take comfort in rituals, and it seems that mankind always has. The Pharisees, those ultimate bad guys of the New Testament, they were masters of ritual; they could turn just about anything into ritual, an ability I covet a little more than I should. Getting the ritual right is important in Christianity – right ritual is the beginning of orthodoxy, which means right glory, correct praise – and Christ Church is one of those outposts of Christendom where right ritual can be found. We take comfort in our ritual, the ritual of the Mass, the cycle of daily prayer, the lighting of candles and ringing of bells. And we should. Those things are the foundations of a life doing Christianity. We take comfort in the ritual, and we should, unless we make the mistake of the Pharisee.
“Two men went up to the Temple to pray.” So begins the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee was doing his job, so to speak, he was taking comfort in some rituals we would be rather familiar with. He no doubt had fasted as he was commanded, he certainly had tithed of everything he owned. He had made prayer offering at dawn and was back at three in the afternoon for another shot at it. He was careful not to defile himself,so he stood off by himself, lest some unclean sinner touched him. He was orthodox; joylessly orthodox, perhaps, but orthodox nonetheless. He was the exact opposite of the other guy in the story.
The other guy was a tax collector. Tax collectors came in three types: “those who purchased the right from government to collect specific taxes; supervisory officials, regional directors, like Zacchaeus (a “chief” collector or agent), and employees or agents who collected indirect taxes through tolls at major transport and commercial centers like Jericho and Capernaum.”1 Tax collectors couldn’t have been more despised by the Jewish population, they were viewed as sellouts, mercenaries, thieves, and often they were. They were a numerous and visible sign of everything that was oppressive about Rome. They were the exact opposite of the Pharisees, but the tax collector in this parable, he had something going for him.
When I was a parishioner at St. James in Long Branch and had just started the path to ordination, I felt that I had to go to everything everybody did or I would be conspicuous by my absence. So I went to an ecumenical Thanksgiving service at the Reformed church in Long Branch, and that’s where I learned to never just make up prayers. A Baptist minister stood up for what amounted to the prayers of the people, and proceeded not to pray so much as to yell at the congregation by way of fake praying. “Father God, we just want to thank you that we have the things we have,” she began. “Father God (it always starts with ‘Father God’) we should thank you that we are not like the homeless who have no roof over their heads…” She went on like this for a while. She didn’t actually say `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income’ but she was intent on scolding us while maybe praying, ostensibly thanking God the we were not like the homeless, the hungry, the addict, and so on, until Fr. Freer and I began digging a way out under our seats.
That minister had the Pharisee problem, and don’t get me wrong, most of us at some point have the Pharisee problem. At one time or another we compare ourselves to others, and if circumstances provide, we are thankful that we are not like other people. At one time or another we find ourselves relieved that we are not notoriously bad, or at least relieved that we haven’t been caught being notoriously bad. Maybe we talk like that to God, maybe our prayers turn to an excuse to make ourselves feel better about our own circumstances. Maybe our prayers turn into a hammer, a hammer we can use to bludgeon our neighbors. Maybe we are so intent on these things that we forget to pray to God.
And if that danger is there, maybe we want to look at the other guy, that tax collector, that despised of Israel, that traitor and thief, maybe we should look to him for an example of how we should act. Maybe we should see what his ritual was and see if we might take some comfort in it. The tax collector stood far off where he would not be seen, lest the scorn of others be too much for him. On his knees and his back stooped, his eyes to the ground lest the glory and mercy of God be too much for him. He beat his breast in anguish for what he had done and left undone, his transgressions in thought, word, and deed, and cried out for mercy: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector was beheld by God and left the Temple justified, forgiven, right with God. The tax collector had a ritual in which he brought his deepest concerns to God in prayer and in his substance; he had a ritual in which he demonstrated his total dependence on the Lord; he had a ritual in which he could take comfort. What does your ritual do for you?
1The Center for Sunday Liturgy, The Thirteen Sunday in Ordinary Time, C,